My recent blog entry started the discussion of five things every high school needs to be a successful secondary institution and best serve their student community. In short, the five elements were (1) more guidance counselors, (2) highlight your successes, (3) more opportunities for your top students, (4) increase STEAM opportunities, and (5) hire a full time College and Career Counselor. While these are a solid top five suggestions, the past few days have brought bits of reflection and thus additional ideas on how to make a good high school great. Let's continue the list...
6) Hire great teachers
While many community members look to administration to build and foster relationships with their children and support their educational journey, it is the teaching staff who spends their days collaborating and leading our students in and out of their classrooms. It is imperative that a successful high school has a teaching staff who cares, who goes the extra mile, who responds to any form of communication in a timely fashion, who provides authentic and prompt feedback to student work, and who is approachable to all of their students. A quick search of RateMyTeacher provides a bevvy of information on which teachers live up to this high standard. Spend an afternoon at the local dining establishment and you'll hear plenty of gossip of what teacher you want for 10th grade science and which 9th grade mathematics teacher you need to avoid. Even if these conversations are built on falsehoods, word travels fast. Any current or future teacher hires need to fit the right kind of expectation. It is also the job of the administrator to work with those teachers who are not successful in the classroom. There are points and there are patterns. One upset parent is a point, albeit valid. Ten complaining students and parents shows a pattern and this is something that needs to be addressed by the site administrator to best support the involved teacher.
7) Invigorate your teaching staff
And for these teachers already on staff, an administrative team needs to figure out how to best support and invigorate their teaching experience. At Union Middle, I address these topic in a variety of ways. For some staff members, I simply ask what do they need to be successful and I try my best to make it happen. More books? Done. Need a release day? Let's see what we can do. For other staff members, support may take the form of a constructive and sometimes challenging conversation. How did that lesson go? What are your takeaways? What would you do differently next time? What worked really well? An administrator needs to have these conversations with their teaching staff in order to move some staff members where they need to be. Other staff members may just need to get out of their classroom and see what other teachers are doing, either through a visit to another school or via a local conference. Union Middle sent ten teachers to the GAFE summit in Palo Alto last Summer, another ten teachers to the CUE conference last Fall, and even more staff to local CLMS and CUE conferences. While an administrator can't say yes to every request, you can try your best to make it happen.
8) Add technology to your students' lives
Here, at Union Middle School, we have twenty ChromeBooks carts for use in addition to our two Mac Computer Labs. I'm looking to add Kindles for student checkout in our library, buckets of eight iPads for teacher check-out, and hopefully student-led digital announcements in the upcoming future. Next year, every student in sixth grade will have their own ChromeBook to carry from class to class, home, and back to school the following day. Every 7th and 8th grade classroom will have their own ChromeBook cart. We are adding as many opportunities as possible in our classrooms for students and trying to provide significant professional development for our teachers to best support them therein. Concerned about behavioral issues? Here's an easy solution: Add technology to the classroom. Students will increase their engagement in the lesson tenfold. When our 8th graders promote this summer, what will their experience at the local high school be? How often will they be able to have technology in their classrooms for student use? A successful high school needs to make technology access for their students a top priority.
9) Listen to your parents to increase parental involvement
While I recognize that not every community is blessed with high parent involvement, our local schools greatly benefit from our parents' generosity of their time and financial support. One of my main responsibilities as a school administrator is to be as responsive as possible to our parent community, to assist with both the easy and the challenging questions, and to provide a link for our parents to our school campus. Even if a parent is upset with the content of my shared message, I hope they will at least appreciate the responsiveness of my communication and know that I have the best interests of their student at heart. Every morning, it starts with parking lot duty, continues with constant supervision of the students during breaks and lunch (which often includes silly conversations with our students about even sillier topics), and ends with more parking lot duty at the end of the school day. It is my mission to listen to every parent concern and respond in a timely fashion. In a recent optional Google Forms survey, I asked the question if the parent would like a personal reply to their concern and/or question. For every parent who responded with a "yes", I sent a quick reply to begin our dialogue. Most of these replies were sent within minutes of the parent finishing the survey. After all, my goal is to listen to all of our community members, whether they be students, parents, teachers, or local residents and hopefully increase the connection and involvement they feel to our school. These efforts are easily transferable to the high school campus.
10) Have fun
It's 5:40 on a Friday night and I'm about to head outside to welcome students to tonight's dance. Yes, my wife and kids are at home and it's hard to be away for another evening. That said, being at tonight's dance, waving hi to the parents as they drop off their students in the pouring rain, sharing smiles with every kids along with a welcome to tonight's dance - it creates a culture of having fun. Our student activities during lunch offer more opportunities for students to just be silly during the school day. We are adding more and more clubs (underwater robotics???) that blend excitement with cooperative learning. We are even trying out a "no homework night" in an effort to encourage our students to have a night usually reserved for studying to instead have fun and be a kid again. I think if you ask our students about their school experience, many of them will answer that they have fun while learning. This should be the goal. Students who have fun at school are more likely to come to school. It eliminates attendance issues (we've had only three instances of a student cutting a class in my five years at Union Middle) and increases student engagement during class. I realize that not every activity or classroom lesson can be fun, but thoughtful lesson planning with timely topics relevant to a student's daily journey leads to a higher investment at your school. And most of all, have fun. We work with kids. Best job in the world.